PROVIDENCE — The law enforcement career of Providence Sgt. Joseph Hanley III has been bookended by judges calling him a liar.
In 2005, Hanley was just a rookie when a District Court judge accused him of lying as a witness to protect a veteran officer on trial for assault. Hanley and other officers, the judge said, were part of a “code of silence.”
Fast forward 16 years, to Thursday afternoon. Hanley was in the same courthouse, with the same defense attorney, now facing a criminal charge brought against him by his own police department. An internal affairs investigator found that Hanley — a supervisor who has made numerous arrests and earned many commendations — had punched, kicked, stepped on, and ground his knee into the head of a handcuffed man lying face-down on the pavement in April 2020.
During the seven-day trial, the judge said, he found all of the witnesses to be credible — except Hanley, whose testimony he called “an utter fabrication.”
Judge Brian Goldman found Hanley guilty of misdemeanor simple assault. Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Hanley to a year at the Adult Correctional Institutions, with 90 days to serve, plus 100 hours of community service. The judge said he thought that sentence was “Draconian,”and instead sentenced Hanley to a year’s probation, anger management classes, and no contact with the victim, Rishod Gore.
Hanley is appealing, which means a new trial for him in Superior Court.
Several officers testified against Hanley about what happened the night of April 19, 2020. They had just arrested a man after a domestic disturbance on Knight Street, on Federal Hill, when Hanley showed up.
Gore, who was friends with the man who’d been arrested, pointed his cell phone at the police officers and yelled “Watch what happens!” as he walked away.
The officers testified that it was Hanley’s decision to go after Gore, pull him out of his car, and arrest him.
The judge noted that one rookie officer, Patrolman Abraham Lugo, testified that he had control over Gore within seconds of handcuffing him, that Gore wasn’t resisting and didn’t need what Hanley called “compliance strikes.”
Although the defense focused on Gore’s past criminal record and his wearing of a “Black Lives Matter” facemask on the stand, the judge said he found Gore’s testimony consistent and credible.
Hanley, however, was not, the judge said. His testimony belied the witnesses as well as videos of the incident from Lugo’s body-worn camera and from a witness who recorded the incident with her cell phone from her fourth-floor apartment.
Hanley’s body-worn camera was not turned on during the arrest, which is against department policy. He claimed not to know why.
Hanley did turn it on when the incident was over, and recorded himself deciding what he was going to tell a supervisor about why he didn’t have the camera on. The reasons he gave the lieutenant, and the court, were contradictory and false, the judge said.
The videos show Hanley assaulting Gore while he was handcuffed and not resisting, punctuating each strike with taunts: “This is what you wanted, big guy,” “You act like an animal, I’m gonna handle it,” and “You want to act like a savage, that’s what you get.”
Taken together, Hanley’s actions showed “malice,” the judge said.
“People must have faith and trust in our police,” Goldman said. That means holding officers accountable when they abuse that trust, he said.
The verdict is a welcome change from what many have called a “code of silence,” “blue code,” or “blue wall” — when police officers protect other police officers by refusing to testify against them or by not reporting a colleague’s misconduct.
But Jim Vincent, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said he doesn’t think there’s been a significant change in what he called the “blue wall of silence.” Lugo’s body-worn camera video showed what was happening as he snapped on the handcuffs and took custody of Gore, he said. A cell-phone video, taken by a woman living in a top-floor apartment, showed the scene.
“Without the videos (in this case), we’re not anywhere,” Vincent said Thursday. “It’s not anything new — it’s just being filmed.”
He pointed to the video from May 2020 that showed George Floyd, a Black man, dying as a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. The video shows that Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” and other officers at the scene didn’t intervene. All of them have been charged in Floyd’s murder; Chauvin’s trial is scheduled to begin on March 29.
Videos — whether from bystanders or body-worn cameras — are forcing a change, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
It’s no longer just testimony or different perspectives of witnesses or police officers, he explained. There’s video, and there’s a reckoning.
“In the George Floyd case, anyone who sees that video is just appalled, and that includes police,” Wexler said. “So what’s happening is as you see more evidence, you are seeing more people speaking out from the police world.”
There is a culture in policing, like any other profession, Wexler said, but that is starting to change. More departments are adopting concepts such as “duty to intervene,” in which officers are required to speak out, he said.
“The police chiefs set the tone in an organization,” Wexler said. “It’s all about leadership, talking about their responsibilities and what good policing is, and treating people humanely.”
Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said their model use-of-force policy includes those instructions to officers, that there is an obligation for them to speak up when they see something happening.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Wordell said. “For many years, it’s been talked about as a culture of not speaking out, especially if its a senior officer to a rookie officer, but in the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, we have put it out there. The expectation is you are responsible to the public. We are out here to serve the public.”
Hanley remains suspended without pay from the Providence Police Department. After the criminal case is over, he will face a hearing under the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Mayor Jorge Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré have said they want to fire him.
“Our approach to public safety relies on trust between the police and the community and we are appalled by what this officer did,” Elorza said in a statement Thursday. “We hope this verdict helps bring justice to the victim and, as we move forward, we will remain focused on continuing to building trust between the police and our residents.”
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, whose office is prosecuting police misconduct, praised judge’s decision.
“Police officers have a difficult and often thankless job. They work hard to protect the public, and the vast majority serve honorably and well, “ Neronha said in a statement. “However, when an officer fails to uphold his oath and uses excessive force against a member of the public, it is imperative that we take strong action to hold them appropriately accountable for such misconduct.”
After the verdict, Hanley and his lawyer, Michael J. Colucci, strode away quickly from the courthouse but were unable to avoid the crush of reporters.
Did Hanley take issue with the judge calling him a liar? a Globe reporter asked.
“I was disappointed,” Hanley responded.